For any genre to endure the test of time, it must develop alongside its own audience. You just have to appear in the decrease of the MMORPG in the overdue’00s to realize that if a genre stagnates, the fans will lose interest.
Battle Royale is the genre du jour. It began in scrappy mods and Early Access, got picked up by programmers quick to realise its potential and popularity, and is now rolling into the largest annual blockbusters such as Call of Duty and Battlefield 5. There’s no greater illustration of the prevalence of the genre compared to Epic’s Fortnite, which did not even start life as a battle royale match, but is now obviously the pioneer in the field concerning earnings and mainstream success.
Battle Royale is established, then, but if it is to grow and remain a favorite genre, where does it go next? I talked to a number of the programmers that are making revolutionary strides in the genre, in the hopes of gaining some insight into where battle royale could be heading over the next few years.
Even the most enthusiastic PUBG enthusiast out there might have to acknowledge that the match’s melee combat is not exactly deep. That is where Egress comes in. Currently under development for PC, PS4 and Xbox from St. Petersburg-based studio, Fazan, it’s a notably Souls-like battle aesthetic, with dodging and glancing occurring from a third person perspective. Axes, picks and hammers are the weapons of choice, together with magic and muskets in a dystopian, Victorian landscape.
Talking to direct designer Artem, 1 statement stood out to me. “I don’t like games where you have to know how to play and win. I prefer games where you feel how to play and win.” It is undeniably true that games like PUBG as well as Fortnite rely heavily on a stat-based meta. Certain weapons for certain situations, certain loot spots for specific playstyles. This is the type of thing that Fazan are trying to pull away from. As Artem describes, “In Egress almost every character has only two special abilities, but these abilities completely represent a character’s class. You have to be tactical, you have to feel your character, you have to play smart, but you don’t have to keep in mind tons of information.”
“Waiting for the matchmaker, sitting in a lobby, sitting in a plane, parachuting to the ground… you could easily be spending half your time simply waiting to play the game”
But, Artem is well aware of the expectations of the genre. He admits that “when somebody hears ‘battle royale’ they instantly imagine a PUBG clone, with a mandatory one hundred players jumping into single map and shooting each other.” Egress, on the other hand, does not have any shooter component, round secure zone, parachute jumps or hundred-player maps. In Artem’s words “it plays and feels differently, but keeps the feeling of surviving and hunting that we love so much in battle royale games.”
It sounds the notion of battle royale games being too cumbersome is shared by quite a few programmers. Presently the third hottest battle royale name after Fortnite and PUBG, surviv.io is a stripped-back, top notch affair with the running, hiding and shooting which you would expect in a battle royale title.
Justin Kim is among two men working on it, and his design philosophy is only to supply the participant with nonstop action. “We pride ourselves on the fact that there is little to no downtime between games,” he states. “We have no lobbies or parachuting sequence, which means if you’re in the game, you’re active and playing.”
It is a fact that there is never a second spent waiting to play at surviv.io, something he describes as a “significant pain point” in a number of other games. “Waiting for the matchmaker, sitting in a lobby, sitting in a plane, parachuting to the ground… you could easily be spending half your time simply waiting to play the game.”
I asked Justin if he believed BR matches were on the decrease, but he believes that the reverse is accurate, saying “the battle royale genre is really just getting started, games like surviv.io are a prime example of that. We’ve shown that a 2D top-down BR is compelling enough to be the third most popular on PC.”
One thing I’ve found particularly surprising about the entire battle royale trend is the lack of big film and TV studios getting in on the action. You would have thought that, at the very least, the owners of the Hunger Games series could have observed this as some type of digital goldmine. But, all of the devs I talked to have been much less enthusiastic.
Talking specifically about that entire subset of fiction, Justin points out that “the Hunger Games and young adult dystopia craze had essentially died by the time even H1Z1 had come out with their battle royale. It might have been a different story if the two trends had aligned, we’d probably have seen some kind of Hunger Games-branded battle royale.” Artem was even less impressed by the thought, saying simply that “if you work with some IPs, it will impose certain limitations for you,” and describing games like that as “unnecessary”.
My final stop on the excursion of battle royale studios took me to a place about as far removed from PUBG and H1Z1 as you can possibly get. Brendan McCaskell of McCaskell matches in Kelowna, Canada, is taking the basic assumption of battle royale games, eliminating them from the computer and placing them onto your tabletop. His board sport, Last One Standing, is now an active Kickstarter project. Talking to Brendan, he explains his inspiration as coming out of a desire to experience games such as PUBG in a more intimate manner.
“I’m a huge advocate of anything that encourages shared experiences and face-to-face interaction,” he states. “So while I do love Fortnite and PUBG, I would prefer to sit around a table with my buds and enjoy one another.”
It is an intriguing notion. Fight royale games, by their very nature, promote an ‘us and them’ type of mindset. You fall onto the map, possibly with a couple of friends, and move to thoughtlessly shoot, burst and mow down some number of nameless strangers. The entire genre almost thrives on a sense of anonymity.
By taking away that, Brendan has completely altered the air of the battle royale experience. But this appears to be exactly what he is going for. During our interview, he talks about producing “memorable moments around the table” and drops in phrases such as “fun for the whole family”. Spoken like a real board game geek, Brendan describes his desire that Last One Standing will become “a perfect gateway game to bridge people from the video game world into the board game world.”
But, Brendan is not naive to the fact he may be regarded as a something of a bandwagon leaper. “There is always a certain degree of pressure designers feel to succeed and when they see a certain style of game being a huge success, it’s hard not to shoehorn it into whatever project you are currently working on.”
However, for Brendan, it is not the theory but the implementation that counts most. Talking about Fortnite and Epic Games, he points out that “they took what they needed to from PUBG and created something unique and arguably just more fun. Blizzard does a wonderful job of this as well. Most of their ‘huge’ hits are not original ideas. They are just better at execution than anyone else.”
Regardless of your feelings on the entire battle royale craze, inspiration and innovation go hand-in-hand in regards to creating a really memorable game. If there’s one thing all of the programmers I interviewed had in common, it was their view that what defines a battle royale match is not parachute jumps, big islands and loot drops, but the raw, human instinct of hunting and living. These very simple concepts give many, many frameworks for entertaining gameplay and these men are moving further and further away from what we traditionally think of as a battle royale game.
“Epic took what they needed from PUBG and created something unique and arguably just more fun. Blizzard does a wonderful job of this as well. They are just better at execution”
It is not impossible for a genre to retain its popularity for years or even decades. Point-and-click experiences are still going strong, having enjoyed something of a renaissance lately. The traditional CRPG never really lost its popularity, with recent hits like Pillars of Eternity and its sequel still selling well and racking up excellent inspection scores. The thing that all those genres have in common is the removal, with time, of particular elements that the fans grew tired of. You won’t find much boring pixel searching in a contemporary point-and-click game, nor will you’ve got to know what the incredibly obtuse phrase ‘to hit armor class zero’ (the’90s were dark times) means to play Pillars of Eternity.
It is this process of taking an axe to particular elements of the battle royale genre, be they long wait times, needing to remember loads of stats, or simply having a very impersonal experience, I see each these devs engaged in. Whether they’re chopping away at something desired remains to be seen, but as with any experiment, the risk of it blowing up in your face is ever-present.
For each Fortnite there’ll be a Radical Heights, but it is those failures and the lessons learned from those who enable genres to forge onwards and make awesome new experiences for one more generation.
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